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How Harper Tories, Selinger NDP the same

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OTTAWA -- According to the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, at 10:19 p.m. Saturday night, Canada's national debt hit $600 billion.

It has never been that high and it's growing at a rate of $74.6 million a day.

Putting that into perspective, the amount of money Canada owes could pay NHL star Sydney Crosby for 68,974 more years.

In order to pay it off, every man, woman and child would have to fork over about $17,400 each.

This milestone comes less than two weeks after Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was forced to admit he isn't going to be able to balance the budget by 2015-16 as Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised during the 2011 election.

In fact, he is going to run deficits $20 billion more than expected over the next four years and maybe, if the stars align and the global economy co-operates, the budget will be back in the black by 2016-17.

Harper's hope to extend new tax credits and income-splitting for families just before he goes back and asks people for their vote again is seeming less likely by the day.

But Flaherty and Harper are not the only ones on the budget hot seat. Last Tuesday, Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger had to admit, in his second speech from the throne, his government would also be unable to keep its election promise of balancing the provincial budget by 2014. Manitoba's debt exceeds $14.5 billion and is growing faster than $4 million a day.

It is galling to diehard Manitoba Tories because their party lost the last election, in part, because it said it wouldn't be able to balance the budget until 2016, two years after the NDP.

So the Tories and their supporters were howling at an even higher pitch than usual about the NDP's inability to budget its way out of a paper bag.

But in the span of just over a week, both a provincial NDP government and a federal Conservative government had to admit they both had the same problem. They are spending more than they have, but of course, and both seem to think it's someone else's fault.

Both the Conservatives and NDP need to take responsibility for these situations. No, Flaherty couldn't control the U.S. housing collapse or the European debt crisis. No, Selinger could not get Mother Nature to behave and not flood much of southern Manitoba in 2011.

But both governments spent money that didn't need to be spent in good times and now throw up their hands in disbelief when they don't have enough in the bad times.

Before the 2008 recession, the Conservatives had already increased spending each year at far higher rates than the previous government ever did.

Sure, they blamed it on a minority government, but at some point, the man writing the cheques has got to stand up and take responsibility. It cannot always be someone else's fault.

Before the recession and the 2011 flood, the NDP generally balanced its budget every year using money from its rainy-day savings account rather than socking some away for a rainy day.

Now that revenues are down, all that spending has come back to haunt both governments, and it's tough for them to rein it in.

Every dollar spent that we don't have makes the problem worse, because as the debt grows, the cost of servicing the debt grows, leaving less money for core programs or simply increasing the size of the debt.

The provincial and federal governments both have dug their heels into the sand in their own ideological ways when it comes to dealing with the budget. While the federal Conservatives preach fiscal restraint, they run around the country passing out cheques for everything from snowmobile trail-clearing equipment to tennis court upgrades and pet-food-industry promotions.

In Manitoba, the province is adamant there will be no cuts to core services -- health care, education or children's programs -- in order to balance the budget.

These governments want to be re-elected and they know it's tough to sell voters on cuts and easy to buy votes with shiny new baubles purchased with big cheques provided by smiling MPs or MLAs.

Canada's debt situation isn't where it was 15 years ago, when the world's economic experts warned Canada was on the brink. We are not on a fiscal cliff. But it took the federal government less than three years to undo more than a decade's worth of debt repayment. If governments don't start getting tough, Canada's fiscal cliff will not be far off.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 26, 2012 $sourceSection0

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